Summertime in the Southeastern United States is famous for its flying insects and other bugs and every year my family is on the hunt for something to keep them at bay. This year, with a one-year-old son to worry about, I started looking for a safe, natural method to keep mosquitoes off of him and wondered whether or not citronella is safe for babies and if it is strong enough to do the job.
Research shows that citronella is reasonably safe for babies under normal circumstances, but shouldn’t be used on those less than six months old. There have been documented short-term side effects such as allergic reactions and irritation and long-term studies suggest that repeated, heavy exposure to the skin could have some carcinogenic effects due to trace amounts of a chemical called methyleugenol in the oils.
If you want to learn more about the safety of citronella oil for your baby, read on to see the questions I had and my personal experience using it to protect my family.
The main factors for citronella safety for babies
Anytime we are looking at how safe a product is for our babies, things can get complicated quickly. There are so many variables and it’s impossible to say with any certainty that anything is truly safe in all situations, at all times, for all babies. As a parent, I don’t want to take any unnecessary risks with any of my children so I’m always trying to look at a problem from all of the angles to determine the best solution.
In this case, it looks like citronella oil is generally safe for humans, even babies, when used as intended. The EPA currently considers the oil to be on the list of minimum risk pesticides which means it doesn’t consider it dangerous enough to test. It’s also a ‘Generally Recognized as Safe’ food additive by the FDA and is often found as a flavoring agent in foods and beverages because of the unique aroma. In Canada, however, it is recommended that citronella be phased out of use in commercial products that are applied to the skin because trace amounts of methyleugenol in the oil have been shown to be carcinogenic in animal studies.
When it comes to getting bit by flying insects, especially mosquitoes, the danger can be extremely high. Mosquitoes can be carriers of some extremely dangerous diseases and, in most cases, they are going to be a bigger threat than any kind of repellant that you might be using. At the end of the day, you’ll need to make your own decision about what you use for your little one!
What exactly is citronella oil?
Like many natural oils and products, citronella oil is plant-based and comes directly from nature itself. In this case, citronella as we know it is actually a combination of a few different naturally-occurring oils found in a few different families of plants and grasses. The big three oils are geraniol, citronellal, and citronellol and the oils of different plants contain varying percentages of these, leading to differences in effectiveness.
When most people think of citronella plants, they usually picture the Citronella geranium with its distinctive leaves and aroma. You’ll find these potted up and ready for sale in most home improvement stores around the beginning of summer in the South, marketed as an insect repellant that you can have living on your front porch! Interestingly, the oil from this plant doesn’t contain a drop of citronellal, one of the big three components I mentioned earlier, and studies have repeatedly shown that despite being called the ‘mosquito plant’ it probably doesn’t work at all.
Most commercial citronella oil actually comes from two varieties of lemongrass that contain the complete triad of oils that we’re looking for in a complete package. They are commonly planted in and around vegetable gardens for, you guessed it, repelling insects! Unfortunately, just like the ‘mosquito plant,’ they won’t do much for you if you just plant them near your front porch.
Does citronella oil actually help keep babies safe from insects?
When it comes to the insect repelling properties of citronella oil itself, studies and anecdotal evidence are mixed. While some people swear by using the candles or torches in their backyard, for instance, other people claim they are totally useless. The oil is meant to work as a repellant by confusing insects that are looking for a target to feed upon. The idea is that if they can’t smell you, they won’t be able to find you to bite you.
Let’s look at the three major categories of citronella-based insect products that you’ll find in the store and see what the consensus is:
- Candles – Ranging from tabletop decorative candles to refillable tiki torches, citronella candles are meant to help protect a whole area from insects like mosquitoes. Signs point to them being moderately effective at repelling insects if you use enough of them in the right way.
- Sprays and lotions – Applied directly on the skin, citronella sprays and lotions advertise protection against biting insects for about an hour per application. These seem to actually work as advertised, but because citronella oil evaporates so quickly into the air they have to be applied very frequently which is a big hassle. There is also evidence that heavy, repeated exposure to the skin could be dangerous in the long-term. We like the All Terrain brand which uses a mix of citronella, lemongrass, peppermint, and other oils (see the latest reviews and buy on Amazon) and works VERY well for most people.
- Wearables – Relatively new to the market, you’ll find a lot of bracelets and other wearables containing essential oils like citronella that claim to protect the wearer. There isn’t a lot of evidence that these products work at all. One study did show a wearable device that emitted a mist of a synthetic insect repellant worked, but none of the ones with essential oils were shown to be effective.
When can babies actually use citronella oil
Nearly any product you’ll find with citronella in the ingredients list will recommend that it shouldn’t be used on children less than six months old unless a doctor tells you to do it. Babies generally have more sensitive skin than adults and even older children so this recommendation is to help prevent any potentially harmful allergic reactions that an infant might not be able to handle.
If you do decide to use citronella oil on your baby, be sure to follow the directions and only use the minimum amount required to get the job done. Be careful not to let your baby play with the spray bottle, lotion container, or candle because they are likely to try and eat it! You would be surprised how quickly an older baby can figure out how to use the pump on a sprayer and start sucking down the solution!
Short-term side effects of use
In general, short-term side effects include irritation to the area of exposure. This could include the eyes, throat, and nasal passages when inhaling citronella smoke from a candle or torch. It could also include the skin when using lotions or sprays that include the oil.
As when using any new product on your baby, keep a close eye out for any reactions that seem out of the ordinary. A little irritation or redness will likely go away if you stop using it, but it’s probably best to see a doctor if it seems to get worse or if you see major signs of allergic reaction like difficulty breathing.
Longer-term side effects and studies
There have been some longer-term studies on citronella safety for babies and humans in general. The major component oils of citronella, geraniol, citronellal, and citronellol, have all been shown to be safe in animal studies.
Geraniol, in particular, has actually been shown to reduce the growth of some cancers in several studies.
Like I mentioned before, however, trace amounts of methyleugenol are often found in commercial citronella oil products and this compound is ‘reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen’ because it caused the development of tumors in mice.
Overall, it looks like citronella is generally safe for babies over the age of six months in most normal situations.
Despite the fact that there is some risk to applying the oil to the skin, it’s much more likely that you’ll be rubbing some on your baby for an hour in the evening while the family plays outside than all day, every day throughout the summer. When babies play outside for long periods of time you are going to have to worry about sun exposure long before you’ll need to worry about extra bug spray.
Of course, if you are down South like me, insect repellant is a must at certain times so be sure to make your decision about what to use before it’s time to head outside – you don’t want to go out with zero protection!